"A New York Treasure" --Village Voice
Category: Todd Drew

The Man, Amen

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Yesterday was the fifth anniversary of Todd Drew’s final post for Bronx Banter. It was the last thing he ever wrote.

A few months earlier I talked to Todd about joining the Banter. Here’s an email he sent me on October 19, 2008:

Alex,

Sorry for the length of this email.

I am very excited about the possibility of moving all my writing over to Bronx Banter. I just want to make sure that you know who I am.

I started blogging by accident. When Pete Abraham was still on Blogger and started making people register to comment I wasn’t very “tech savvy” and I didn’t realize I could have quit after setting up a password. I kept hitting next and when I was finished I’d set up a blog template. Since I did that I figured I might write something.

My wife thinks it’s been good for me. We’ve been together for a long time and she watched be burn out in newspapers and magazines. While I do a lot of writing and editing in my job at the ACLU, it has been different than living on two or three hours of sleep because there was always more reporting and writing to do.

Yankees For Justice has become who I am. It’s where I live and what I see and who I know and what I think and believe. I would love to bring that all to Bronx Banter, but I don’t want to lose anything and I don’t want to put you in a tough spot.

I went through and collected a bunch of posts I’ve done over the last two years. I ended up with a lot of links (sorry about that), but pay particular attention to the social justice section. I’ve written a lot about Sean Bell and brutal cops and city policies that go out of their way to hurt the poorest people.

Take a look at the George Mitchell stuff. I stand by every word I wrote about him and Selig in the weeks that followed that ridiculous “investigation” and “report.”

Read my posts defending Barry Bonds. Those got three separate death threats emailed to me.

Also, take a look at the pieces I write about soldiers, especially the kid who used to work at Yankee Stadium and came home from Iraq in body bag.

We were talking about Alex Rodriguez yesterday and you asked if I was Latin. I said I am not. A lot of people who don’t like that I defend Barry Bonds think I am black. I am not. But then again, maybe I am on both counts.

I am Latin and black. I come from China and Africa and the Middle East. I snuck across the border in the middle of the night. I picked cotton in Texas and processed meat in Kansas and laid bricks in Brooklyn. That makes me an American.

And I’m an American whose history doesn’t go back that far. All the family I know were poor farmers in the Tully Valley just south of Syracuse. They lost their farms in the Great Depression and became poor factory workers in Syracuse. I grew up on the Northside, which some people think is pretty rough. The cops call the neighborhood: Free Jail.

The factories started closing up years before I ever had a shot at a job so when I got near the end of high school I got my GED and took my military physical just like every other guy in my neighborhood. I was maybe a day or so from signing the enlistment papers when my baseball coach called and said the school’s art teacher needed to see me. One of the things I did in high school was work in the photo darkroom.

The local newspaper needed someone to work third shift and develop film and print pictures. I took the job and didn’t sign those military papers. I worked that job for a long time and eventually they taught me how to layout news pages and then they sent me out with a camera to take photos and then I did some writing, too.

Journalism has fallen a long way since then. It is full of rich folks with college degrees who have no interest in covering the people in this country. I once asked Jimmy Breslin if he could a newspaperman today and he said: “Fuck no. I couldn’t even get in the door unless they needed a janitor.”

He wasn’t kidding either.

On Yankees For Justice it says: I believe in baseball and an equally free, open, just society for everyone. That’s who I am and where I live and what I see and who I know and what I think and believe.

After you read these posts I hope you still want me around.

-Todd

And then:

This is what I’ve been doing lately:
And here are few other things you should know about me:
I don’t like George Mitchell or Bud Selig:
I don’t like Mike Lupica either:
But there was a time when I thought Lupica was going to be great:
I am committed to social justice:
I like Barry Bonds:
I like Sammy Sosa, too:
I don’t like people taking shots at Miguel Tejada:
I believe in soldiers:
I believe too many soldiers die for no good reason:
I never stand for God Bless America:
I believe that George Steinbrenner is a populist:
I believe the Cubans don’t know who they’re dealing with:
I went to The New York Times Building once, but only because Jimmy Breslin was there:
I get most of my stories on the 2 train:
I like New York ballplayers:
I am Mexican:
And I still think that blogs are poor excuses for street corners:

Now, and always, Todd  is our brother, in our hearts forever. He is the soul of the Banter, our guardian angel.

Todd Drew: The Man. Amen.

Without Feathers

Many of you will remember that our old pal Todd Drew was a true believer. He was a Yankee season ticket holder. Never left his seat once the game began. He clapped until his palms were red, didn’t matter if the Yanks were getting blown out. When the game was over he went downstairs and waited by the players gate. He’d cheer on the rookies and offer words of encouragement to the losing pitcher.

Todd didn’t live long enough to see the new Yankee Stadium, never saw A.J. Burnett pitch for his team, but he was alive when they signed Burnett and was excited about it. He liked Burnett’s arm, in spite of his erratic career. More than anything, Todd believed in Burnett’s potential. In 2009, Burnett did reasonably well for the Yanks. The past two years, he has been lousy. He starts tonight and it is easy to think that the Yankees’ season will be over before long.

But hope is the thing with feathers, not without. Todd isn’t around to watch the game. But he’s with us in spirit and he’d be clapping and rooting until the final out. So should we.

Never mind that glass looking half-full:  Let’s Go Yan-kees.

Running with the Devil

I spoke to Pat Jordan this morning. I don’t need to borrow his gun after all–and oh, I learned that you can’t polish a Glock because it’s plastic–but he might want to put his to good use as his beloved ‘Caines were trounced by Florida State last night. He got so pissed watching football, he turned to the Yankee-Twins game. Then he got furious with the Twins, who went out like mice against the Yanks.

Me? I was at the game with the Mrs, sitting in the Todd Drew box, and I have to admit–by the ninth inning, I felt bad for the Twins. Or at least their fans. There was a group of five of them sitting in the row in front of us and by the time Time “Enter Sandman” played over the loudspeakers, these fans were getting heckled pretty good. On their way to another loss, another loss to the Yankees. They have a guy on their team named Hardy (first initial J and everything)–Damned Yankees, indeed.

The Twins had a few chances last night to do some damage and came up short. They had pitches to hit and they missed them, striking out, popping-up. The Yankees, on the other hand, removed any tension from this game early on, put up runs in the second, third and fourth innings, capped by a two-run dinger by Marcus “They Call Me Mr.” Thames. Phil Hughes pitched about as well as we could have hoped, and the only trouble the Yanks encountered was a lousy outing by Kerry Wood, who let up a run and loaded the bases, recording just one out in the eighth. But Boone Logan and Dave Robertson got out of it–Jason Kubel and Delmon Young missed their pitches and hit sky high, yet harmless fly balls.

Then it was time for the Great Mariano who retired the Twins in order and for the last time of the season. Jim Thome, a future Hall of Famer, faced Rivera in each game–popped-out to Rodriguez in Game One, and popped-out to Brett Gardner, who had him played perfectly, in Game Two. Now, in Game Three, Thome led off the ninth and saw three pitches. The last one, fastball on the outside corner, froze Thome, and he walked off the field, dismissed for the year.

Final Score:  Yanks 6, Twins 1.

Yanks advance, looking every bit the part of defending world champs.

Emily and I had a good time–and I thoroughly enjoyed scoring the game in my new scorebook—but from the time we got off the subway, the energy around us was subdued. And it remained that way for most of the game, the by-product of the Yankees’ great success. There was no urgency in the building, something closer to entitlement. I don’t think that’s unnatural–how else would a fan base that has been so spoiled react?–but Emily turned to me late in the game and said, “This doesn’t feel any different than a regular season game.”

That said, we’ll take it. Another series win. Never gets old.

[Photo Credit: Andrew Burton/Chris McGrath--Getty Images]

I Believe in Baseball

Lasting Yankee Stadium Memories is now in bookstores.

To celebrated its publication, dig this piece about Todd Drew from one of his dearest friends:

By Peter Zanardi

We never talked but then Todd Drew didn’t reveal a bit of himself. We never parted without making some kind of future plan. I’m totally convinced that would have continued if he lived to be 100.

The last time we met, Todd talked mostly about his own blog, Yankees For Justice, and his contributions to Bronx Banter. He also expressed his admiration for Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. An unabashed liberal, Todd called Sanders “my favorite Senator.” Because I have Vermont connections, and because Sanders (who is actually Brooklyn born) is so approachable, I made a mental note to see about getting a personalized item for Todd.

My wife Jane and I would give it to him when we returned to New York for a weekend that would definitely include Jazz at Lincoln Center.

Todd’s mind had many, many rooms, and I’ll be forever thankful that I got to visit a few of them. There was, of course, baseball in general and the Yankees in particular. In the last years of his all-too-short stay, that was the warmest, coziest, most comforting of the rooms. He kept the cleanest scorebook I’ve ever seen, and I’m guessing the room was equally tidy.There were also spaces for ballet, jazz, history, politics, and especially the written word. The love between Todd and his wife Marsha was in every room. You couldn’t escape it.

I often marveled at what this son of a Syracuse bartender had become. He was a damn good writer, as evidenced by his Yankees For Justice and Bronx Banter contributions. I loved his style of driving home points with short, jab-like sentences.

Writing this, I now marvel at what I became just knowing him.

Considering the company, Todd’s joy in being one of the contributors to this effort would have been immeasurable. He was more than aware of all the others. His bookshelves rivaled some small town libraries. He loved to discuss particular books, stories, and opinions.

He read. He read a lot because he was convinced that was the route to becoming a better writer. The passion was always there—a divine gift perhaps. His sense of right and wrong, received from his parents Richard and Linda, was evident very early. He recalled, with pride, walking a picket line at age five or six with his Dad, then a Carrier employee in Syracuse.

The writing skills were not so easy to come by.

Auto racing brought us together. He was working for NASCAR handling media for a northern series. He had gone south to work for Dale Earnhardt. Among the things he brought back north was Marsha. I was involved in racetrack publicity at the time and delighted in listening to Marsha’s drawl.

Soon we wound up at the same auto racing weekly outside of Boston. I was sort of a “Dutch Uncle” at first—not more talented but a generation older. I watched Todd labor over columns. He’d spend an hour finding the right three-or-four word phrase. He’d ask so many questions.

He read living writers and dead writers, and he would experiment. “Where did you get that?” I’d ask. “Furman Bisher, Red Smith, Joe Falls,” he would answer. He’d write in the first person, in the second, in the third. He’d play with quotes, change paragraphs around. Sometimes it would work, and sometimes it wouldn’t, but he battled on.

He moved to a magazine. He started winning some acclaim including an honorable mention in a Best American Sports Stories collection. Bones Bourcier, the award-winning auto-racing writer, and I would kind of talk behind his back about how badly he wanted to be a great writer.

Bones and I were both in Oklahoma when we heard of Todd’s passing. We talked of his desire again, wishing, praying even, that this time he heard us.

The auto-racing run ended. Todd took Marsha back to Syracuse where his folks ran Poor Richard’s Pub. Times were not always good, the truth is he struggled, but the love he had for his native city showed through. He loved its baseball team, its fairgrounds, its place in New York State history, and its people. He wrote for some small newspapers.

I recall sitting in a diner in Baldwinsville outside of Syracuse talking about the Erie Canal. We drove to Rochester to see a ball game because Syracuse was away. The next day we were at the famed Oswego Speedway.

Then I heard Todd and Marsha were moving to New York City. He was taking that passion and that sense of right and wrong to the American Civil Liberties Union. “How perfect is that?” my wife, Jane, asked.

Soon they were living on the Upper West Side, going to Yankee games, to the New York City Ballet, to Birdland and Lincoln Center. He was an active member of the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR).

When we visited we took good shoes because we were going to walk. That, he said, was the way to appreciate his new home. He and Marsha would walk up to Harlem to jazz joints. When the subway workers went out, he walked the many blocks to work. He got to the Stadium as early as he could. He often left as late as possible.

Todd loved showing off his new home to his old friend. He taught Jane and me not to be afraid of the city, to enjoy its multitude of possibilities. His writing reflected the same love of New York’s people.

My wife was born in Brooklyn. She still had memories of the house her grandfather, an immigrant from Sweden, had built there. Her maternal grandfather, an English immigrant, was one of the founders of a church a few blocks away. Todd, Marsha, and I decided we would take Jane to those places that are in an area of Brooklyn now largely populated by minorities.

After a long subway ride, we walked many blocks before stopping in front of the house where Jane’s father was brought up. Then we walked on to the church. We couldn’t get in at first. A church elder, an immigrant himself, happened along and, hearing the story, invited us in.

Jane asked about the baptismal font that was dedicated in her grandfather’s memory some 50 years earlier. Sure enough, it was there, still being used. The plaque memorializing her grandfather was intact.

My wife’s eyes filled up. I’m almost sure Todd’s eyes did as well. He appreciated grandfathers and heritage. It was an incredible, very human moment. The fact that Todd Drew, who refused to dwell on differences—be they religion, color, income, education, whatever—was there made it more special.

I’ve was blessed to traveled a lot of miles with Todd Drew. I watched many races with him, went to Yankee Stadium and Shea Stadium with him. We talked and argued, always gently, about many things including the designated hitter (I dislike it) and modern versus traditional ballet. I truly not only loved Todd Drew, I loved being with him.

My lasting memory of Todd is that moment in that church in Brooklyn.

Todd and I went to the Stadium that night, Marsha graciously giving up her ticket. The next day, she took it back, and Jane and I enjoyed New York by ourselves.

“I believe in baseball and an equally free, open, just society for everyone,” Todd wrote. He hit that right on the nose.

Ace of Cakes

Victor Martinez led off the second inning on Saturday afternoon at Yankee Stadium and CC Sabathia fell behind him, 3-1. On the Fox broadcast, Tim McCarver said that Martinez was probably looking for a fastball on the inside part of the plate. When Sabathia delivered just that, Martinez hit a home run over the left field fence. Adrian Beltre doubled and then Mike Lowell doubled Beltre home.

But that was the only scoring the Red Sox would do as Sabathia pitched eight innings and the Yankees beat the Red Sox, 5-2. Sabathia fell behind hitters in the early innings but found his way, throwing more off-speed stuff than gas. He had some help from the home plate umpire, Jerry Layne, who called some wide strikes, particularly to David Ortiz.

Perhaps the late afternoon shadows gave Layne as much trouble as it seemed to be giving the hitters. The Yanks tied the score in the bottom of the second when Curtis Granderson tripled home Lance Berkman and then Ramiro Pena, a last minute replacement for Alex Rodriguez who was accidentally struck by a line drive off the bat of Berkman during batting practice, grounded out but collected an RBI (Rodriguez is day-to-day).

Then, John Lackey went to work and looked impressive. The shadows were looking especially tough as Lackey cruised through the first two batters in the bottom of the fifth. But then four straight singles–Swisher, Teixiera, Cano and Posada–gave the Yanks the lead (man, does Cano ever look good swinging the bat these days). Pena’s RBI single in the sixth was the cherry on top. Mariano Rivera pitched a 1-2-3 ninth and the Yankees’ lead over Boston is back to six. Even better, the Bombers gained a game on the Rays, who were blitzed by the Jays this afternoon, 17-11.

So, for the moment, my nerves have settled. Curtis Granderson had a couple of hits, Pena had a nice game (despite making an error and looking uncomfortable at third), and even though Berkman went hitless, and got booed as a result, I think it’s just a matter of time before Fat Elvis starts hitting.

This was a game the Yanks had to have. AJ Burnett is on the hill tomorrow night and that won’t fill Yankee fans with confidence, but who knows? Maybe Burnett goes out and throws a gem. Hope is the thing with feathers, said Emily D. And that’s word to Todd Drew.

[Photo Credit: Mike Stobe/Getty Images]

Funeral for a Buddy

I’ve been playing golf for so long I couldn’t quit the game if I tried, I don’t remember not knowing how to swing a club. It’s something my father and I share to this day. Perhaps my daughter will see me hit golf balls or watch Paula Creamer on TV and get excited about the game like I did when I was her age. Golf is an escape, a source of sanity and competition all at the same time. It’s that way for the group of guys I play with every weekend; one guy in particular, Don. On Sunday evening, July 18th, we lost him.

I got the call the following morning. We all expected the news. When we played thee weeks ago at Lido, another member of our group saw Don’s cousin who told him the end was near. Don battled cancer for about a year-and-a-half.

He was 46. Made a mint trading oil stocks. Had a history of substance abuse in his younger days but while he still maintained some vices (smoking, the occasional drunken evening), he’d kicked the drugs. His only junkie-level activity for the length of time I knew him was golf.

And he was a junky golfer. Slow as shit, three practice swings prior to every shot, with a swing that looked like a cross between Kenny Perry and Al Czervik from “Caddyshack.” I don’t know how he hit the ball, but he was effective in his own way. He was an 18 handicap that could shoot 85, kick your ass and take your money.

He was one of the guys who welcomed me into that group that regularly shows up at Lido well before dawn to get into the first few groups, regardless of the time of year. Don was that way with everyone, though.

Three years ago, he went on a golfing trip to Scotland. Unsolicited, he brought back souvenir ball markers from Gleneagles for me and several other guys in the group. Earlier that year, again unsolicited, he did the same thing following a business trip to Chicago where he played at Butler National, which used to host the Western Open, except the gift was a sleeve of golf balls with the Butler National logo emblazoned on the side.

The best gift, though, sits near the putting/chipping green adjacent to the 18th green and 1st and 10th tees at Lido: a wooden bench. Engraved on the bench are the names of the guys in our early-morning outfit. It reads “The Posse” at the top center, and then our names in a cool cursive font underneath. We all wanted to chip in and help contribute to the bench, but Don wouldn’t allow it. The same way for the last two years, for our annual two-day tournament — which will be renamed in his honor — he wouldn’t accept any of our contributions for either the trophies handed out to the Low Net, 2nd Place Net and Low Gross winners, or the buffet lunch that accompanied the ceremony. He just wanted all of us to relax, have fun and enjoy ourselves. On him.

Our tournament was the last time I saw Don. He was 40 pounds thinner due to the chemo. He’d shaved his beard. He looked good and sounded even better. On the golf course, he was the same insufferable Don we loved to rib. Somehow, he got the staff at Lido to give him a handicapped flag that he attached to his cart. Like he was going to get sympathy from us?

At that point in time — it was Labor Day weekend — Don thought he was in remission. Turned out the cancer was only hibernating. By January he was back in Florida at the treatment center, playing golf whenever breaks in his chemo and radiation would allow. In mid-February, Don was amidst what would be the last round of gold he’d ever play, at TPC Sawgrass, home of The Players Championship. He got as far as the 4th hole when an attack debilitated him and an ambulance was rushed to the course to cart him off. Stupid sonofabitch asked for a rain check. That was Don.

For the next five months of his life was resigned to a bed, either at the treatment center in Florida, Sloan Kettering here in New York, or finally, at home with his wife and teenage daughter. He may have died Sunday, but as far as I’m concerned, he died that day in February on the 4th hole at Sawgrass. That’s when his vitality was erased. He’d tell you the same thing. At least at that moment, Don was happy in his escape, doing what he loved most.

Our group assembled at his wake last weekend to pay our respects. It was open casket. He had grown his beard again. We mourned and we celebrated his life, recounted stories; everybody had one — and chipped in for a life-size floral wreath that looked like a golf ball on a tee. The flowers bore a hexagonal shape that resembled the dimple pattern on Callaway golf balls, just like the ones Don played. It was the best way we knew how to return the favor for all he did for us.

Don’s death fell amid the recent trifecta of passings in the Yankees’ Universe — Bob Sheppard on July 11, George Steinbrenner on July 13, and Ralph Houk on the 21st. Trying to put it all in context, I thought about Don, and then Todd Drew, and then turned my thoughts to Sheppard, the Boss and Houk. I was angry that each of those men lived a long life and neither Todd nor Don got that opportunity. Then I felt guilty for thinking that.

At least Todd and Don got to enjoy their escapes, and made a point to enjoy them even more when sharing their experiences with friends. That’s a legacy.

If you have similar stories about escapes, whether they be golf, baseball, any experiences you share with “buddies,” please share them in Comments.

[Photo Credit: Inside Florida.com, twooverpar.com]

Memories Are Forever

Our friend Todd Drew passed away almost a year-and-a-half ago. In the days after his death, I coped with the sadness by staying busy. I didn’t want to sit with the pain. We talked about Todd on the site as the Banter sat shiva. What can we do? The rest of the Banter writers and I talked about it. What about a compilation of Todd’s work, from his blog Yankees for Justice, and his Shadow Games columns here at the Banter?

Then Diane Firstman suggested that we compile the Yankee Stadium Memories series into a book. It would have a broader appeal. Made sense to me. So when Skyhorse approached me about doing just that, I knew we had the perfect farewell to Todd.

I’m proud to announce that Skyhorse will release Bronx Banter Presents: Lasting Yankee Stadium Memories this October. The collection features 60 essays including 25 entirely new pieces (the Amazon link above has some errors that will be corrected shortly). And none other than Yogi Berra penned the foreword. The book features original work from the likes of Richard Ben Cramer, Tony Kornheiser, Tom Boswell, Leigh Montville, Pete Hamill, Charles Pierce, John Schulian, William Nack, Steve Rushin and Alan Schwarz.

Marilyn Johnson, Tyler Kepner, Neil DeMause, Ted Berg and I have essays on the new Stadium. Todd’s wife, Marsha, collaborated with me on the final piece in the book, a bittersweet memory of her view from the season-ticket seats in the new place that Todd didn’t live to see. It is the perfect ending. The book is introduced by Todd’s wonderful Stadium memory.

I lost a battle with the publisher in an effort to get all of the Stadium Memories that appeared on-line into the book. I was left to make some painful choices (and the writers whose work didn’t make the final cut were gracious and professional when they didn’t need to be and I can’t tell you how much I appreciate that).  Of the essays that first appeared here on the Banter, close to two-thirds have been revised–condensed, mostly to make room for as many as possible–and I think vastly improved.

I’m exceedingly proud of the book. The entire Banter staff had a hand in putting it together and making it as strong as possible. I think this collection stands out for its depth and diversity. There are pieces from Yankee fans and Yankee-haters, New York beat writers and columnists, novelists and actors, New Yorkers and out-of-towners, transplants and visitors. The essays are, at turns, touching and sentimental, vulgar and hilarious, thoughtful and and irreverent, almost always intelligent—a true reflection of Bronx Banter.

I think Todd would dig it and I hope that you do too.

[Photo Credit: Baseball-Fever.com, N.Y. Daily News]

Grace Under Pressure

candle

One year ago today, Todd Drew wrote his final post for Bronx Banter (and for all I know it was the last thing he ever wrote, period). The next day he went into the hospital. He never made it out. We miss him terribly at the Banter though his spirit lives on. I’m sure he’d relish all the Hot Stove activity, all the kibbitzing, all the passion.

So here’s raising a toast in his honor. Spill a little on the ground, and enjoy a moment of silence to remember out dear friend.

Here is his final post, which is grace under pressure if I’ve ever seen it:

SHADOW GAMES: Baseball and Me

By Todd Drew

I went to a baseball game after my father’s funeral. I also went to one after finding out about my mother’s brain cancer.

It was selfish and heartless. I felt guilty before and embarrassed after, but for nine innings I felt only the game. That’s the way it’s always been between baseball and me.

It was my friend when I didn’t have any others. And it has always been there to talk or listen or simply to watch.

Baseball helps me forget and it makes me remember. That’s why it was exactly what I needed on the worst days of my life.

But there were no games when a doctor told me that I had cancer. The neighborhood was out of baseball on that cold November day. No one was playing at Franz Sigel Park or John Mullaly Park. And there wasn’t even a game of catch in Joyce Kilmer Park. The last game at the old Yankee Stadium was long gone and Opening Day at the new Yankee Stadium was long off.

So I went home and wished for one of those summer days when I was a kid and my mother would send me to the ballpark with a paper sack stuffed with her famous tuna-fish sandwiches. That was back when you could slip through a delivery gate with the beer kegs and watch batting practice. And it was always okay to come home late with a beat-up scorecard and popcorn stuck between your teeth.

The doctor told me that tomorrow’s surgery and chemotherapy treatment might keep me in the hospital for 10 days.

“At least it’s December,” I said. “There aren’t any ballgames to miss.”

And I will be ready to slip through a delivery gate with the beer kegs when the new Yankee Stadium opens. I’ll watch batting practice with one of my mother’s famous tuna-fish sandwiches and come home late with a beat-up scorecard and popcorn stuck between my teeth.

Cancer can’t change the way it will always be between baseball and me.

SHADOW GAMES: Baseball and Me

I went to a baseball game after my father’s funeral. I also went to one after finding out about my mother’s brain cancer.

It was selfish and heartless. I felt guilty before and embarrassed after, but for nine innings I felt only the game. That’s the way it’s always been between baseball and me.

It was my friend when I didn’t have any others. And it has always been there to talk or listen or simply to watch.

Baseball helps me forget and it makes me remember. That’s why it was exactly what I needed on the worst days of my life.

But there were no games when a doctor told me that I had cancer. The neighborhood was out of baseball on that cold November day. No one was playing at Franz Sigel Park or John Mullaly Park. And there wasn’t even a game of catch in Joyce Kilmer Park. The last game at the old Yankee Stadium was long gone and Opening Day at the new Yankee Stadium was long off.

So I went home and wished for one of those summer days when I was a kid and my mother would send me to the ballpark with a paper sack stuffed with her famous tuna-fish sandwiches. That was back when you could slip through a delivery gate with the beer kegs and watch batting practice. And it was always okay to come home late with a beat-up scorecard and popcorn stuck between your teeth.

The doctor told me that tomorrow’s surgery and chemotherapy treatment might keep me in the hospital for 10 days.

“At least it’s December,” I said. “There aren’t any ballgames to miss.”

And I will be ready to slip through a delivery gate with the beer kegs when the new Yankee Stadium opens. I’ll watch batting practice with one of my mother’s famous tuna-fish sandwiches and come home late with a beat-up scorecard and popcorn stuck between my teeth.

Cancer can’t change the way it will always be between baseball and me.

SHADOW GAMES: The Other Side

I found myself waiting for the 2 train at Chambers Street last night. My Yankees cap was pulled low and I was reading a newspaper filled with everything about CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett.

The pictures of them smiling in their new uniforms made me think about baseball in the summertime. I saw fastballs and sliders and curveballs and changeups coming from the left and the right.

A train came, but I ignored it and kept reading. Then another train came and another and another. I let them all pass and dug deeper into the newspaper.

“Why don’t you go home and read where it’s warm?” I finally asked myself.

“Because I’ve got no place go,” said the voice next to me.

Robbie Sanchez used to have a job like mine and an apartment like mine and a life like mine. He had a dozen Derek Jeter T-shirts and shared a season-ticket package with some friends. Depression used to set in when the Yankees lost, but he always slept it off in a warm bed.

These days he stays warm by moving.

“I’ll hang around here until someone throws me out,” Sanchez said. “Then I’ll head to Penn Station because there’s a guy at one of the food stands who gives out coffee on cold nights.

“I’m just between lives right now,” he continued. “The key is to hold on until you make it to the other side.”

The Yankees strengthen his grip.

“Baseball lifts my spirits,” Sanchez said. “Things don’t seem as bad when you’ve got something to look forward to. The Yankees didn’t make the playoffs last year so they’re doing something about it. CC and A.J. will get the job done and I’ve got to do the same.”

“Let’s go to Penn Station and get some coffee,” I said.

“Sure,” Sanchez said. “Are you done with that newspaper?”

SHADOW GAMES: The Good Stuff

Karl Sharperson woke up to rain pounding off his apartment window on Jerome Avenue. It was well before dawn, but he quickly splashed water on his face, brushed his teeth and pulled on his lucky T-shirt: Alex Rodriguez number 13. He added two sweatshirts and a coat before heading downstairs to meet the weather.

“I knew it was gonna be cold and wet,” he said. “But it’s no big deal because I heard that CC and A.J. are in the neighborhood. The word is that there might be a big press conference soon. That will be the beginning of something big and the end of something bad.

“I’ve dealt with four years of lousy Carl Pavano jokes,” he continued. “I’m Karl with a K. He’s Carl with a C. That’s C for candy-ass.”

Karl with a K is happy that’s all in the past.

“We’re gonna have a strong starting rotation this year,” he said. “No more buttock bruises or car crashes with garbage trucks. Nobody could line up a string of injuries like Pavano had. Nobody.

“I’m free from all the jokes and this team is free from a lot of drama,” Karl with a K continued. “So let’s get CC and A.J. announced and then sign Andy and get ready to play ball.”

Karl with a K pulled up his collar and yanked down his hat to keep off the rain.

“I hope the weather is better on Opening Day,” he said. “At least we know the good stuff is on the way.”

SHADOW GAMES: Bet On It

Kevin Sanders headed downtown to collect on a bet yesterday morning. A horse he liked – Toga Tiger – outran the field in the second race at Aqueduct.

“Word on the street had him a sure winner,” Sanders said. “I like fast horses when my money is riding on them.”

Toga Tiger paid off big and the money felt good in Sanders’s hand. But it didn’t feel good enough to pass on some poker.

“I live by the words of my father,” Sanders explained. “‘You can’t win if you’re not in the game.’”

Sanders sat at a table in a back room on the Lower Eastside and was up big for awhile. But he lost some hands and came home with nothing.

“You win some and you lose some,” Sanders said. “I’d rather lose a few than play it safe and never win big. Everything is a gamble: horses, cards and even baseball.”

Baseball is Sanders’s true passion.

“I bet my heart, my soul and my life on the Yankees,” he said. “But I never bet money. Baseball is too important for that.”

Building a baseball team is a different kind of gamble.

“I know that signing a guy like A.J. Burnett is a risk,” Sanders said. “He has had injuries in the past, but he also has shutdown stuff when he’s right. I think you’ve got to bet on him being ‘right’ if you want to win.”

And that’s all Sanders really cares about.

“I don’t mind taking losses at the table or even the track as long as the Yankees keep winning the arms race,” he said. “That’s gonna get us back to the World Series.”

Sanders smiled.

“Bet on it.”

SHADOW GAMES: Everything for Everyone

Orders were flying over the counter at a deli on Water Street this morning.

“I’ll take a Western with home fries and rye toast,” someone shouted.

“Give me a bacon, egg and cheese sandwich to go,” someone else yelled.

“What kind of bread?” the man on the grill asked.

“Slap it on a well-buttered roll,” they answered. “What else would you use for a heart-attack special?”

“I’m just trying to make sure you get what you want,” the grill man said.

Everyone seems to be getting what they want these days.

The Yankees got CC Sabathia to head the rotation.

Sabathia got a record contract and a call from Derek Jeter.

“The money is nice,” the guy who ordered the Western said, “but I bet the call from Jeter didn’t hurt.”

A call to A.J. Burnett added another power arm to the pitching staff.

“The Yankees are pulling out all the stops to get everything for everyone,” the guy waiting for the heart-attack special said. “We’re getting what we want and the players are getting what they want and the media is even getting something.”

“What’s the media getting?” the Western guy asked.

The heart-attack special guy smiled and said:

“The newspaper writers can now use the old ‘hefty lefty’ tag they’ve had in storage since David Wells left town.”

The grill man wrapped the sandwich and slid it down the counter.

“One heart-attack coming right at you.”

SHADOW GAMES: Lost and Found

A curveball is hard to find and easy to lose and it usually goes flat somewhere along the way. There was an old man on the 2 train this morning with a theory on why Ian Kennedy seems to have found his curveball with the Indios de Mayaguez in Puerto Rico.

“They have the best baseball weather this time of year,” the old man explained. “I grew up in Mayaguez and wish I was spending the winter there, too. It’s the perfect place for Kennedy to polish his curveball and get his confidence back.”

Kennedy carries a 2-2 record and a 1.56 ERA into today’s game against the Lobos de Arecibo.

“I’ve heard he looks great,” the old man said. “I believe in the kid and still think he’s going to be a good Major League starter.”

The old man crumpled his coffee cup and gripped it like a curveball.

“I used to do some pitching myself,” the old man said. “I could drop curveballs in for strikes all day.”

The old man smiled because he knows that the best curveballs come from memories.

“It’s a lot easier to talk about ‘em than it was to throw ‘em,” he admitted. “Good curveballs have a way of getting lost.”

Kennedy lost his sometime last year and got knocked around by big-league hitters.

“They were sitting on his fastball and changeup,” the old man said. “He needs to have a third pitch working. Maybe now he’s found the curveball I lost all those years ago.”

Another smile tugged at the edges of the old man’s mouth.

“I know he didn’t really find mine,” the old man said. “He found his own curveball and that’s going to make all the difference.”

SHADOW GAMES: Coffee, Donuts and CC

Juan Carlos was ready for the meeting at 5:30 a.m. Coffee was brewed and donuts were lined up neatly on the stainless-steel counter.

The Bronx’s top baseball minds not at the Winter Meetings in Las Vegas – Javier from Walton Avenue, Fat Paulie from Gerard Avenue, Reggie from Mott Haven and Jon from High Bridge – would soon arrive to discuss the Yankees and CC Sabathia.

“Baseball is big business for me,” said Juan Carlos as he finished readying his cart. “They can’t do their meetings without my coffee and donuts.

“Once they went on so long that I had to send a kid to Twin Donuts for more,” he continued. “That was one of their marathon sessions last year when they were determined to keep Phil Hughes in pinstripes. They haven’t gone to those lengths yet this winter.”

Juan Carlos expects that to change today.

“The talk should really heat up,” he said. “Brian Cashman may be wrapping up a deal with CC on the other side of the country, but these guys are going to have their say in the Bronx.

“I can see another marathon session coming,” Juan Carlos continued. “This time I might need to add a lunch menu and possibly even dinner.”

Juan Carlos laughed and said:

“I could probably just send that kid back to Twin Donuts. These guys would eat donuts for breakfast, lunch and dinner if the baseball talk was good enough.”

CC certainly makes it good enough.

SHADOW GAMES: An Easy Target

Alex Rodriguez has always been an easy target.

He had a can’t-miss sign on his back as a teenager. Strike one.

He is now labeled as the best player in the game. Strike two.

He is paid like the best player in game. Strike three.

Last week Rodriguez announced that he’s going to play for the Dominican Republic in the 2009 World Baseball Classic and it seemed like the whole world took a shot at him.

Back in 2006 he debated playing for the Dominican Republic where his parents are from and he spent part of his childhood or the United States where he was born. He chose the United States and some people in the Dominican felt slighted. Most people in the United States feel slighted no matter what he does.

Rodriguez brings some of the controversy on himself. He tends to be too open and honest and allows the media to pick apart who he knows and where he goes and what he wears and how much he cares.

Rodriguez doesn’t have many flaws as a player, but he certainly has some as a public figure.

I have flaws, too. I make mistakes and haul around plenty of emotional baggage. My friends and neighbors also have flaws. We all live in old buildings and ride crowded trains and some made the mistake of being born poor the same way Rodriguez was 33 years ago just across the Harlem River in Washington Heights. Maybe that’s why everyone around here pulls for the guy when it seems like the rest of the world wants to shoot him down.

I suppose we could be out of touch or it might just be that people in this neighborhood understand what it’s like to be an easy target.

SHADOW GAMES: A New View

As we wait for the Winter Meetings to heat up…

Things changed on the 145th Street Bridge yesterday. The wind barreling down the Harlem River stung my face and the new buildings going up at the old Bronx Terminal Market cut down my view.

That view of the old Yankee Stadium has been dying for a long time. I just didn’t want to see it because my whole life has been spent believing that everything I love would always be there.

That has spared me the trouble of ever saving anything. I love scoring baseball games, but don’t save scorecards. I love opening packs of baseball cards, but I’m not a collector. I love writing baseball stories, but have never saved any of them.

Maybe I’m too interested in what’s next to care about the past. Or maybe that’s just the easy way out. Looking forward has always given me hope and I don’t look back because Satchel Paige said that something might be gaining on me. He was, of course, correct.

Paige was always correct although his direction was sometimes off. The new Yankee Stadium has been closing on me for a while now, but it wasn’t sneaking up from behind. It was coming head on all along.

I should have seen it during the last night at the old Yankee Stadium and when the team contacted me about a relocation plan and when my seats at the new Yankee Stadium arrived a few weeks ago. But old habits die hard and I continued to focus on what had always been in front of me.

Then standing in the bitter cold on the 145th Street Bridge it struck me that the new view – which includes parts of both Yankee Stadiums – might be even better than the old one.

It won’t last forever so I took something to save: A picture. It’s not as sharp as a memory, but it already has me thinking about keeping my scorecard from Opening Day.

SHADOW GAMES: The Baseball Gods

Jose Calero believes in gods.

He figures the gods are against him if the elevators aren’t working when he delivers pizzas to one of the tall apartment buildings. If he has to climb above the fifth floor he becomes convinced that the gods hate him.

“They always show their feelings,” Calero explained. “If things go bad then I try and do good and make the gods happy. Things are always better when the gods are on your side.”

Calero doesn’t believe in a specific god.

“I believe in all gods,” he said. “There are different gods for different things: Elevator gods and money gods, too. Once I was out of cash and wasn’t even going to be able to buy groceries, but I found $20 on the ground. The gods were looking out for me.”

The gods gave him a landlord who lets the rent slide sometimes and friends who look out for him.

“I’ve got it pretty good,” Calero admitted. “I just need the gods for the little things like elevators and money and baseball.”

Calero paused and dug around in his pocket. He pulled out a coin and flipped it in the air.

“I bought a newspaper this morning and got this back as change,” he said. “I thought it was a quarter at first, but it’s a coin from Panama.

“That’s a sign from the gods,” Calero continued. “Mariano is from Panama and next year is sure to be his best ever.”

Someone pointed out that every year is Mariano Rivera’s best ever.

“But this will be even better,” Calero insisted. “He will save the final game of the World Series and lead the parade downtown.”

Calero smiled.

“There is no stopping us now. The baseball gods are on our side.”

SHADOW GAMES: Stealing Home

The guys gathered around Juan Carlos’s coffee cart watched a desperate move on the Grand Concourse this morning.

A woman trying to catch a bus bolted across four lanes of traffic. She sidestepped a delivery van and just missed being clipped by a garbage truck before reaching the other side through a wave of screeching tires and screaming horns.

The guys shook their heads.

“She might be nuts,” someone said, “but she’s got guts.”

“Maybe she’s late for work,” someone else offered.

“I can’t imagine any job being that important,” another said.

“Are you kidding?” someone snapped. “A job is all that stands between any of us and living on the streets. Lose your job, lose your home, lose your life. I would take a chance like that if I was late and the boss might fire me. Any of us would.”

They all nodded.

“I guess keeping your job is worth just about anything these days,” someone else said. “You just have to calculate the risk and give yourself the best chance to make it.”

“So it’s kinda like stealing a base?” another asked.

“Not exactly,” someone said. “It’s like stealing home.”

SHADOW GAMES: Nobody Asked Me Either, But…

I lean on Red Smith’s words like the counter at the Crown Diner and the bar at Ballpark Lanes and baseball all the time.

“Over the years people have asked, ‘Isn’t it dull covering baseball every day?’ My answer: ‘It becomes dull only to dull minds.’ If you have the perception and the interest to see it, and the wit to express it, your story is always different from yesterday’s story.”

Those are the baseball-writing basics from one of the greats.

Everything starts with the basics. Pitchers locate the fastball and hitters drive the ball back up the middle. Newspapermen usually lean against the bar and deal with it all tomorrow.

Smith used to share the pages of the old New York World Journal Tribune with Jimmy Cannon.

Cannon was also one of the greats, but is probably best known for his often imitated one-liner columns titled: Nobody Asked Me, But…

I loved the style as a young reporter and used to carry a collection of Cannon’s columns around with me like a crutch. An old newspaper editor encouraged me to swipe the idea.

“You had better learn how to steal if you’re gonna make it in this business,” the editor said. “There are only so many good ideas out there and the smart guys usually get ‘em first.”

Cannon was one of the smart guys so I grabbed his idea and ran. I have pounded out many of these columns in past lives, but now I’m just another old righty taking the mound to see if I’ve got anything left on my fastball.

Nobody asked me either, but…

I hope Jason Giambi gets a good deal to play ball somewhere, but I don’t want it to be in the American League East. I would hate to pull against the Big G.

I’m at every Yankees home game and I watch every road game on television.

I know that’s not normal.

I realize I’m crazy, which means I’m not crazy. I think.

It’s really insane to score every game, but I do it anyway.

I’ve had good ideas: Blogging about baseball.

And bad ideas: Becoming an art student through the mail.

I bleed Yankees blue and will defend my team and everyone on it until my last breath.

I believe Derek Jeter is the most important man in this city.

I also believe Alex Rodriguez will lead this team through October.

And that Mariano Rivera will get the final out of a glorious baseball season.

I know that Jorge Posada is the toughest man in the world.

I have faith that Andy Pettitte and Bobby Abreu will be Yankees on Opening Day.

I believe Robinson Cano is going to have the biggest comeback season of all time.

And that Hideki Matsui will bounce back strong, too.

This will be Joba Chamberlain’s year.

But Chien-Ming Wang will win the American League Cy Young Award.

It’s impossible not to love Johnny Damon.

Phil Hughes is going to pitch a lot of big games in the Bronx.

Humberto Sanchez is already a big star in the Bronx and now everyone else will get a good look at him.

I certainly wish Mike Mussina well, but I have no idea how anyone can walk away from baseball while they can still play.

I like the World Baseball Classic, but I want to love it.

If I could pick one ballplayer – living or dead – to have dinner with it would certainly be Josh Gibson.

I’m proud to be on the staff here at Alex Belth’s Bronx Banter. But I think the blog might get more readers if it was called Derek Jeter’s Bronx Banter.

Pitchers and catchers report in 71 days. I’ll be leaning against the bar until then.

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"This ain't football. We do this every day."
--Earl Weaver